Well, I’m finally drunk, so let’s get started.
“The Brute Battles On!”
The brute in question is the Hulk, of course, as imagined by Stan Lee, Herb Trimpe, and Dan Adkins in The Incredible Hulk #112. My first Hulk story.
I’m five years old, maybe six, and the year is 1977 or ‘78. It’s impossible to know if I was reading my comics hot off the drug store spinner rack or a little after-the-fact, having gleaned them from one of those well-thumbed piles that emitted a magic call from the lower shelf of certain smoke-laced magazine shops in downtown Winnipeg. I wasn’t reading the actual Incredible Hulk #112, in any event, but a reprint published in Marvel Super-Heroes #66, with, strangely, a slightly redrawn cover:
(Permit me a small digression: I mean…how wonderfully odd. What was the decision process here? The mid and rear planes of the original cover are absolutely preserved; only the foreground has been redrawn, making the Hulk more…what, exactly? Dynamic? Outraged? Brutish? Saleable? To my eyes, the revision has made the Hulk more childish—a toddler throwing a tantrum. None of the weight, the struggle, the pathos of the original cover survive. One hates to be one of those fanboys, but it’s difficult not to decry the shabbiness of the modernizing impulse of the marketplace so vividly on dislplay here.)
I may be flattering my younger self too much when I imagine that I was not entirely unaware that the story contained within this cover was already something of a relic. But surely I must have sensed that the pictures inside were subtly different from those in other comics I’d read—slightly cruder, somehow more barbaric and “powerful”—even if I didn’t have the language to name Trimpe’s faux-Kirbyisms, an aping which Trimpe himself charmingly mocks (without naming names, of course—he’s much too classy for that) in his modest introduction to the Marvel Masterworks edition of the story.
After expressing genuine dismay that he cannot redraw the pages from this era of his career to produce his own “director’s cut” of the stories Trimpe muses: “If I were to redraw #111, I would change very little in the storytelling or the layouts. It’s the drawing I would focus on… The splash in #111 shows an odd fellow with his hand outstretched in dramatic fashion. This is a gesture which more than a few have made fun of because of the frequency of its occurrence—even when the gesture was not at all necessary… Issue #112 sport many an outstretched hand, including double outstretched hands on story page ten.”
Without question, it is mortifying to look back on one’s own early work. But thank goodness Trimpe was never able to make good on this wish to revisit his pencils, even if that means he must remain bewildered by the many convention-goers who “describe emotionally to [him] how meaningful these stories had been to them.”
Like these other fans, I was and am still moved by the fantastic energy of his Hulk, however “gnome-like” (Trimpe’s word) he sometimes appears.
But mostly, I love the hands.
What better image to figure the urgent melodrama of childhood, where everything is to be apprehended, grasped, conquered? In its reaching, the outstretched hand conveys desire, but in its gestural splendor it also evokes the sorcerer’s conjuring; there is might in it, achievement, mastery, and threat. However hackneyed, however preposterous, Trimpe’s ubiquitous outstretched hands are objective correlatives for this powerful tangle of affects. They are a summation of what it feels like to plunge at life, to grasp at its elusive promise, and, perhaps, truly, to catch it.
There is, in this latter regard, a close correlation between his outstretched hands and his pointing ones, which evoke even more strongly the feelings of triumph and exhilaration. “Behold!”
But that is only one side of the story—the human one that is told through the humanoid Warlord, his people, and the Hulk himself.
There is another story between these pages, too, and this one is pure horror. This is the story about death—the death of the ego, at least, if not the real thing—told through images of the amorphous “Galaxy Master,” a tyrannical disembodied cosmic maw with the terrifying power “to assume any form [it] desires[s].” It begins by donning the shape of a Cyclops with sledgehammer hands—the only time in the story that it will present itself to the Hulk as an adversary that meets him on equal footing. After shattering his sledgehammer on the Hulk’s back, the Galaxy Master adopts a new tactic that will ever after be characteristic: he becomes ungraspable. He multiplies.
You cannot hit what you cannot touch, and now the enemy is everywhere. In two pages that made my five-year-old skin positively crawl with revulsion, the Galaxy Master transforms himself into a swarm of monstrous centipedes that overrun the Hulk at the foot of a starship, clinging to his back like burrs.
The explosion engineered by the Hulk to disperse the centipedes is only temporarily effective. The Galaxy Master will later become a cloud of toxic gas and a hail of white hot meteors. The Hulk will only succeed in destroying him when he surrenders to the self-annihilating logic of the swarm, becoming himself a kind of particle that “disappear[s] right into the center—right inside—of the thing in the sky.”
The Hulk’s improbable/inevitable victory is not what stayed with me, however. Rather, what stuck were those two awful pages of crawling horror—and one other. This one:
For of course Herb Trimpe (or was it Stan Lee?) must have been reading H. P. Lovecraft, whose barrel-shaped Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness seem to have furnished a prototype for the Galaxy Master’s barrel-shaped, betentacled alien race, “creatures of evil,” spawned “a thousand universes away.”
It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the Galaxy Master’s embodiment of the swarm would evoke precisely the kinds of amorphous Lovecraftian terrors whose existence routinely mocked human notions of singular identity. (The eponymous Colour Out of Space, for example.)
Between the outstretched hands and the alien swarm, between the human story of grasping and mastery and the horror story about death (the moment of our own terrifying multiplication/dispersal/vanishing), Stan Lee places a third story—his favourite story, perhaps—one about poetic justice, that most seductive of imaginary morals.
This story emerges “between”the others because its function is mediatory. It is through the self-destruction of the callow humanoid servant of the Galaxy Master (“Traitor! Your own cowardice has destroyed you!”) that Lee rewrites and reconciles the existential dilemma presented in the story’s two main plots. Falling backward off a cliff after betraying his people’s revolution against the enslaving Galaxy Master, the Warlord resolves the tension that has emerged over the course of the tale between human striving and the horrorific pre- and post-egoic state of material chaos against which that striving sets its energies.
How nice it would be to defeat the Galaxy Master, yet how impossible it actually is to do so. But don’t worry, the Hulk can manage it, and fortunately there is a yawning gulch on hand to swallow up the “treacherous” Warlord, the “betrayer” whose only crime is to tell the truth: that we are all in permanent thrall to the Galaxy Master and that our resistance is touching but pointless. It is through this latter ending (not through the Hulk’s more ambiguous, unsettling defeat of the Galaxy Master, which occurs only at the cost of capitulation to the swarm-logic of miniaturaization, a becoming-molecule of the “Goliath”) that Stan converts the existential dilemma (the striving of life against death) into a moral/political choice (the old theme of the betrayal of the just cause), and thereby reassures my five-year-old self that we really can cheat death—so long as we are good!
But the Hulk knows a story-cheat when he smells one. And this one stinks:
Who wouldn’t turn away in disgust? Such lies! Outrageous! “Mad world” indeed!
So, how wonderful is it, then, that Stan recants on the final page? No more fairy tales! The issue ends with the Hulk turning back into helpless, human Bruce Banner to be pinned by the crushing cabin pressure of the space vessel on which he is packed away by the alien princess to travel “back from whence he came.”
Now this is a story. This “cliffhanger” of the Hulk’s transformation back into Bruce Banner is what epiphany looks like. In other words: Oh, shit. There is no NEXT ISSUE. And for those of us who bought comics from spinner racks for 30 cents or from garage sales for a nickel, there literally wasn’t. This was the end of the story.
Magnificent, isn’t it?